Opinion

Silent But Deadly: Why We Need Noise Laws for Electric Vehicles in Kenya

Electric vehicles are becoming increasingly common on our roads. Whether fully electric or equipped with special hybrid systems, each day in Nairobi, you will see a different electric vehicle. The government has even announced new special number plates to encourage EV adoption. All this is happening amid many different conversations about whether Electric Vehicles with batteries are the future, whether hydrogen fuel will take over, or whether traditional fuels – synthetic or fossil – will remain dominant.

Simultaneously, there has been a significant uptake of electric motorcycles, known locally as Bode bodas. Personally, I encounter one almost every day. Their silence scares me, and I find that somewhat unnerving. Given this, I believe there is an urgent need for specific legislation to address the silent nature of EVs in Kenya. Such measures are crucial not only for road safety but also for maintaining public spaces as zones of predictable and controlled traffic movement.

The threat of silent Electric Vehicles and Boda bodas:

Apart from the environmental angle, people love EVs because of how they’ve changed the game for mobility. They’re fast, and they’re quiet. It is this silent characteristic of theirs that’s concerning. While yes, the silence means reduction in noise pollution, there are significant risks that arise especially in a bustling nation like Kenya. We are used to the sound of traditional internal combustion engine (ICE) motorcycles. You will know it is there. It is a sound that pedestrians and other road users have come to recognise and react to. This auditory cue is often vital for safety, giving everyone a fair chance to move aside or stay alert.

Electric motorcycles, however, slip through traffic almost silently. Remember, this is Kenya, where boda boda riders frequently flout standard traffic rules – venturing onto pavements and wrong lanes, ignoring traffic lights, overtaking from the wrong side of the road – the absence of sound removes a critical layer of informal road safety. The stealthy nature electric boda bodas makes them almost ghostlike, capable of startling pedestrians and other road users, potentially leading to accidents.

Electric Vehicle Company Roam parters with Kitale-based company to sell the 200km range 'Roam Air'
The ROAM Air Motorcycle is among the many Electric Bodas being sold locally.

Let’s copy other countries on EV regulation:

Several countries have already come up with laws to deal with the eerie silence of electric vehicles. These force makers of the vehicles to include artificial sounds. For example, in the European Union, new types of electric and hybrid vehicles must be equipped with an Acoustic Vehicle Alerting System (AVAS) that generates noise at speeds up to 20 km/h. Similarly, the United States requires that all new hybrid and electric vehicles emit sounds at speeds up to 30 km/h. These measures ensure that Electric Vehicles are audible, particularly when they pose the most risk to pedestrians – at lower speeds in parking areas, residential places, schools, and city environments.

Kenya can take a cue from these international regulations to develop its own standards. The proposed law would not necessarily mandate that EVs mimic the sound of ICE vehicles but rather that they produce a consistent and recognizable noise. This sound should be distinct and loud enough to alert road users of an approaching vehicle, thereby enhancing safety for everyone. This will stop the scares we are seeing from silent electric boda bodas being used everyday.

Legislation mandating artificial sounds for electric motorcycles and all other TVs is not just a regulatory measure – it is a crucial step towards safeguarding people and molding the future of transportation in Kenya. With proactive policies, Kenya can ensure that the benefits of electric vehicles are enjoyed without compromising on public safety.

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